A Venetian by birth, Jacopo Tintoretto lived and worked in his city for his entire life, and many of his works are still visible in the churches and museums of Venice.
To celebrate the 5th centenary of his birth (sometime between late 1518 and early 1519), special exhibitions and events are taking place between 2018 and 2019 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and, in Venice, at the Doge’s Palace and the Accademia Galleries. Besides the masterpieces in these two museums, other famous works by Tintoretto can be seen in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and in the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto, near the artist’s house.
There is, of course, more to discover in some lesser-known spots around town.
We’ve done a selection of our favorite Tintoretto works, going beyond the obvious sites.
“The Birth of John the Baptist”
in the Church of San Zaccaria, 1560
The world staged on this canvas, now located in the side chapel of Sant’Atanasio, is a world of busy women. While the mother is still in bed, the newborn Saint John lies in the arms of Mary herself, who is encouraging him to turn towards the wet nurse at her side. Other women are bringing towels, sweeping the floor, or carrying away the screen that had protected the mother during childbirth.
This domestic interior is in strong contrast with the flash of light, angels, and the dove of the Holy Ghost descending from the ceiling. Nobody seems to notice this but the old Zechariah, who had never believed he would have a child: his face on the right edge of the canvas is looking in astonishment at the miracle.
The link between these two realms, human and divine, lies on the table in the background, where a loaf of bread reminds us of the sacrifice of Jesus.
“The Wedding Feast at Cana”
in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, 1561
Originally placed in the refectory of the Crociferi Church, the scene would have integrated perfectly into the architecture of the room, creating the illusion of a much longer room thanks to the unusual layout of the painted space.
In fact, Jesus, Mary, and the newly married couple are relegated to the far end of the table in the painting’s background. Yet, in front of our eyes, the miracle is taking place in a scene so lively that we can almost hear the two men on the left talking and the woman in the center asking for wine: her hand, holding a fine transparent glass cup, is also pointing at Jesus, thus helping us not to forget the main character.
in the Church of San Cassiano, 1568
We should never forget the many practical problems that artists had to solve when creating their works. For example: how to paint a scene that would not be displayed in front of the viewers, but on their side?
Tintoretto always carefully considered the location of his works, and the Crucifixion in the church of San Cassiano shows this attention to setting perfectly. Sit on the front pew on the opposite side of the painting and you’ll get the same perspective as the crowd painted on the other side of the Cross.
Jesus is pushed to the side of the scene, so much so that one of his arms is even cut off of the canvas, but his figure is bright and imposing. In front of him, a clumsy soldier is climbing the ladder to place the inscription “King of the Jews” at the top of the Cross: this rather grotesque scene shows us the Crucifixion in all its solemnity and glory.
“The Last Supper”
in the Church of San Polo, 1568-69
Tintoretto became famous for his rather unusual depictions of the Last Supper in several Venetian churches. Far from relying on the traditional frontal view dominated by the figure of Jesus that Leonardo got us used to, Tintoretto liked to scramble things up and invite lots of people to dinner.
The Last Supper in San Polo shows a very busy Jesus, so busy that he’s feeding two of the apostles at the same time. And he’s not the only one eager to give out food: some of the other apostles are turning away from the table to hand out bread to beggars and children around them.
Once more, the Venetian artist is breaking the rules of the established iconography to convey a deeper message and reach a vast public: the power of his style makes him the most modern among his contemporary rivals.